Complete Guide to D&D 5e Backgrounds

by Guides, Player Guides

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Are you ready to add some flavor to your character? Our complete guide to D&D 5e Backgrounds will help you make the right impact on your tabletop experience. Let’s take a look at the list of backgrounds from the D&D Player’s Handbook:

  • Acolyte
  • Anthropologist
  • Archaeologist
  • Athlete
  • Azorious Functionary
  • Boros Legionnaire
  • Celebrity Adventurer’s Scion
  • Charlatan
  • City Watch/Investigator
  • Clan Crafter
  • Cloistered Scholar
  • Courtier
  • Criminal/Spy
  • Dimir Operative
  • Entertainer
  • Faceless
  • Faction Agent
  • Failed Merchant
  • Far Traveler
  • Fisher
  • Folk Hero
  • Gambler
  • Gladiator
  • Golgari Agent
  • Grinner
  • Gruul Anarch
  • Guild Artisan
  • Haunted One
  • Hermit
  • House Agent
  • Inheritor
  • Izzet Engineer
  • Knight
  • Marine
  • Mercenary Veteran
  • Noble
  • Orzhov Representative
  • Outlander
  • Pirate
  • Plaintiff
  • Rakdos Cultist
  • Rival Intern
  • Sage
  • Sailor
  • Selesnya Initiate
  • Shipwright
  • Simic Scientist
  • Smuggler
  • Soldier
  • Urban Bounty Hunter
  • Urchin
  • Uthgardt Tribe Member
  • Volstrucker Agent

Here is a more detailed description of each of the backgrounds from the list above. There’s a lot of choices. Let us help you narrow it down to the perfect match.

What Is a D&D Background?

A D&D background is your character’s story leading to the start of the adventure. As you think about the background, picture what you think is the most impactful moments in their life. Did bandits kidnap them? Maybe, they were raised on the Sea chasing fortune? Perhaps they had their heartbroken and have vowed never to love again.

Whatever those big moments are, think of how they will influence who your character is. After all, what you do, flows out of who you are, so if you want to know how your character should act, you need to know who your character is. It’s also important to remember this story doesn’t stop when you start playing. You’re picking up on that story and continuing it with the other players.

How Do D&D Backgrounds Impact Character Creation?

Your character’s background helps inform every choice you made about your character. Their dress, their personality, the skills you select should all be influenced by your background. Not only that, but backgrounds come with some benefits too! Check it out:

  • Skill Proficiencies – You will gain two skill proficiencies with most backgrounds. For example, an Acolyte gains Insight (WIS) and Religion (INT). That means you add your proficiency bonus to rolls with these skills.
  • Tool Proficiencies – Some backgrounds come with the ability to use tools better. An Outlander gains proficiency with musical instruments and will add their proficiency bonus to any roll involving a musical instrument.
  • Extra Languages – This is a bit rare, but some backgrounds gain one or two languages at a low rank. For example, Sage gets to pick two. This means a Sage will be able to speak and understand two additional languages.
  • Equipment – Each background has a unique set of equipment suited for their station. A player with the Haunted One background starts with a Monster Huntesdr’s Pack. A Haunted One also gets to roll a d100 and pick from a set of gothic trinkets. Jar of pickled ghoul tongues, anyone?
  • Currency – It turns out you need money to survive in the Forgotten Realms. Each background starts (or doesn’t) with a set amount of cash. A Noble background starts with a purse containing 25gp. Treat yo’ self.
  • Features – As your character has traveled through the Forgotten Realms, they would have picked up some unique abilities. A Folk Hero gains Rustic Hospitality which gives you an easier time seeking shelter amongst the common folk. These are vague and mainly at the Dungeon Master’s discretion.

Of course, that’s not all. We still have to discuss the deeper roleplaying aspects. So, let’s take a look at how to pick your background.

How do D&D Backgrounds Impact Roleplaying?

The section above contained the physical and mechanical aspects, but a background is so much more. Before diving in, let’s define some key pieces of your background:

  • Specialty or Event – Basically, your upbringing or education. Tragic backstory etc.
  • Personality Traits – Small or broad terms used to enhance roleplay and set your character apart from others.
  • Ideals – This is what drives you morally. Ideals are tied to alignment, so think neutral/good/evil.
  • Bonds – Your hill to die on. Unshakeable and unwavering.
  • Flaws – Pobody’s Nerfect. Right? Maybe you think you are! Either way, it’s a flaw.

Matching and mashing all of these into one character can be exciting. It’s an emotional and psychological Build-A-Bear, but with a player sheet. Many of these sound similar by wordage, but in D&D, they each provide a different insight into your character. Let’s go in-depth on these.

Specialty or Event

The past determines your future. This is in two parts for a reason. Some backgrounds come with something the character would have specialized in. Think about going to school or doing a trade throughout your life. A Criminal Spy gets to pick from 8 different criminal specialties, each adding a unique flavor to your backstory.

Other backgrounds come with some sort of defining event or tragedy. For a Haunted One, they’re called Harrowing Events. They have 10 to pick from, and these are exclusively for roleplaying flavor. The Dungeon Master could choose to include these in the overall story if they choose to do so. Being born under a dark star sounds kind of cool, even if it’s theoretically impossible.

Personality Trait

Personality traits are small broad terms used to paint the canvas that is your character. These are things that help determine how you act in certain situations. “Thinking is for other people. I prefer action.” This can control a lot of decisions that you make.

Some personality traits are stronger than others. Make sure that you can live with what you pick. Remember, these can evolve throughout a player’s life but ask yourself if a sudden drastic change would change the party dynamic.

Ideals

Ideals are typically tied to your alignment. I tend to pick my alignment and ideals at the same time as one informs the other. Fairness informs a Lawful selection. Power can inform many but often leads to an Evil selection.

Whatever you pick, make sure it matches well with the rest of your character. Ideals give you drive and get your character (or doesn’t) out of bed in the morning.

Bonds

Bonds are all about the long-term game. Motivation. What drives your character for tomorrow? Is everything you pushing towards finding a cure for your sick family member? Are you a champion for the common folk?

Remember, your alignment and ideal will help inform this choice. Someone of an evil alignment will likely not be interested in helping orphans in their afflictions. You may want to become the greatest thief that ever lived.

Flaws

Flaws flow opposite of personality traits. If you flip any personality trait on the negative, it becomes a flaw. Players can use flaws for comedic effect, to hamstring their playthrough for an added challenge, or any reason that ties into a roleplaying aspect.

How to Pick a Background

Okay, so you’ve made it through the aspects that make up a background, time to mix and match everything from the categories above. But how do you piece it all together? Below are some helpful steps to take on your journey to creating the perfect background for your character.

  • Write it Out – Write a few paragraphs about your character. If you write down a backstory, you can go through and match what’s on paper to all aspects of a backstory. This method saves a lot of time and helps reduce the burden of choice.
  • Create a Theme – From Acolyte to Zen Master, create a few themes for your character to match the choices we’ve covered. Think about phrasing in broad terms. Depressed Pedantic Pirate. Carefree Careless Knight. See what resonates with who you want to play.
  • Take Risks – With how many choices there are, it’s easy to make a flat character. Make sure that you sort through your background and sprinkle in risks carefully. Risk being something that makes your character pop. A clumsy assassin that accidentally has success with contracts. Stuff like that.
  • Practice Roleplaying – Practice, practice, practice roleplaying your character. You’re going to find out fairly quickly if your background is something that resonates with your overall theme. Practice your traits, flaws, bonds, and quirks. Practice will help you roleplay during the actual campaign.
  • Tell Someone Your Backstory – Go over your background with someone. Tell them all of the details. Consider practicing some of the roleplaying aspects with them. A friend can help you tighten up the seams to make for a more polished backstory.
  • Keep Your Class in Mind – I don’t want to get too into stats in this post as it’s more about other things, but make sure that your proficiencies match your stats. You don’t want to have a DEX heavy proficiency set and pick a class that can’t use DEX at all. That just won’t synergize. Experienced players can make it work, but match stats between the background and the class if this is your first go.
  • Talk to your Dungeon Master – Finally, go over your backstory with a Dungeon Master. Most DMs will ask for your backstory to work into the campaign anyway. Take the initiative(see what we did there?)and bring your story to them. They should be more than happy to help you make great choices.

Once you’ve sorted through this and your player’s handbook, it’s time to settle on some choices. These are by no means permanent (aside from the more mechanical aspects of a background). So don’t be too worried about feeling stuck. You have the choice to change and grow your character throughout a campaign dynamically.

D&D Background Choice Wheel

If you have trouble choosing, you can go the random route with the Choice Wheel we’ve put together! This wheel doesn’t cover the other aspects of making a background, but it’ll help you pick a starting background. Remember, a lot of these backgrounds are in additional D&D supplements such as:

You can find many of these resources through various internet searches, but we always encourage owning physical copies of books to support their creators!

How to Put It All Together

Once you’ve made all your decisions, it’s time to add it all to your character sheet for quick reference while playing. On your 5e Character Sheet, there are boxes for each of the various parts of a background. Looking at it all at once, it can be overwhelming, so we’re going to break it down section-by-section.

D&D Character Sheet

Backstory

Alright, time to write out that backstory. I know, I know. It seems so final, doesn’t it? The backstory is where I like to start because it informs the rest of my choices.

This box is for you to flush out ideas about where you came from and where you’re going. If this isn’t enough space for you, feel free to write (or type) out elsewhere. You can always put the highlights in this box. If you’re feeling lost, check out our post on how to write a great backstory.

Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws

This box is where those fun little roleplaying quirks go. What do you put in? Two traits, one ideal, one bond, one flaw. This is simply a polite suggestion via the Player’s Handbook. We tend to go with the rule of threes. The more in-depth you are, the more immersed you’ll be.

Features and Traits

This is where those extras go. Are you a Hollow One with the Faceless feature? Put it here, or you’ll forget it. Any extra traits or features that you gain in your adventures, go here. Got a scar in a battle with a demi-lich? Slap it in here! If you need more room, you can use the “Additional Features & Traits” box as well.

Allies and Organizations

Are you a noble with ties to a specific house? Maybe a spy working for some Water Deep organization. That stuff goes here. Draw the symbol. It may come in handy later.

Other Proficiencies and Languages

This is where those extra languages and non-stat proficiencies go — proficiencies in armor, weapons, magic, tools, etc. Basically, anything that’s not in the stat box goes in here. Also, if it’s something you’re good at and have no idea where to put it, this is the catch-all for that sort of thing.

Equipment and Currency

This is where you’ll put the equipment you start with and how much money you have on your character. Each character’s race, class, and background start with various equipment. This includes armor, weapons, trinkets, magical apparatus, and background specialty such as thieves’ tools, etc.

Skills

This is one of the most challenging sections of the entire character sheet. This is where those 1-2 extra proficiencies go, such as the Acolyte gaining proficiency with Insight (WIS) and Religion (INT).

You’ll fill in the circle next to the stat, and be sure to add your proficiency bonus to any roll that has a filled-in circle next to it. Easy enough, right? Are you still confused?

So, we’ve filled out the character sheet. Now what? The rest comes at the table. Let’s take a look at what to do during the actual session.

How to Roleplay a Background

Okay, everything’s on paper now, right? After putting in all that work, many players ignore it for the rest of the campaign! Don’t be that player. Characters become flat because players forget about all of these little details. Your Dungeon Master and fellow players will appreciate your attention to detail.

  • Practice – This is the second time in this post I’ve mentioned practicing. That’s because it’s essential! Go through all of the aspects of your background and say them out loud in character. That way, you’re not surprised during the campaign about yourself. That’s not a great look.
  • Keep Clean Notes – This is probably the nerdiest suggestion, but if you’re clueless between sessions, there’s no way you’ll be able to grow your character. Keep track of your personality and events that cause impact. You can’t witness your best friend die and walk away unchanged (unless you’re roleplaying a sociopath.) Either way, WRITE IT DOWN!
  • Lean into Your Background – Embrace your character down to the minor details. Those smaller details are what takes a character from flat to phat. The more you play on these aspects, the more you encourage others to do so as well. When the whole table is roleplaying, that’s when the magic happens.
  • Interact With Other Backgrounds – It can be fun to discuss your backgrounds with other players and tie them together. Maybe that soldier saved you as a kid, and you’ve lived your life remembering that. Whatever it is, make sure the Dungeon Master is aware of this so they can weave it into the campaign.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. If you want to do a deep dive into better roleplaying, check out our post on How to be a Better D&D Roleplayer.

How to Homebrew a Background

Are you not liking the choices from the handbook? Start investigating lore on your own. The more you know about the Forgotten Realms, the easier it’ll be to homebrew your background. All aspects of a background can be flexible if the Dungeon Master agrees.

Most players end up homebrewing parts of their backstory to fit what they want anyway. Maybe the DM will allow you to mix and match to create exactly what you want. Just make sure that the background matches the feel of the campaign. When in doubt, just ask!

Background Examples

If you just want to scratch the surface and get a feel for how a background looks on paper, check out some of these easy-to-read setups.

BackgroundSkill ProficienciesTool ProficienciesAdditional Languages
Haunted OneChoose two from Arcana (INT), Investigation (INT), Religion (INT), Survival (WIS)Monster Hunter’s PackTwo (Abyssal, Celestial, Deep Speech, Draconic, Infernal, Primordial, Sylvan, or Undercommon)
SageArcana (INT) and History (INT)Two of your choice
SoldierAthletics (STR) and Intimidation (CHA)Gaming Set, Vehicles (land)
Criminal/SpyDeception (CHA) and Stealth (DEX)Gaming Set, Thieves’ Tools


As you can see, not every background gets tool proficiencies or languages. Make sure to keep these things in mind when making your character.

Our Five Favorite Backgrounds

Trust our opinion? Good, you should. Here are our five favorite backgrounds to get you started.

  • Sage – Sage is our favorite pick for any magic user. Gaining Arcana (INT) and History (INT) as starter proficiencies, this background checks all of the right boxes for magic users. You also start with 10gp, which is plenty to cast some weird spells!
  • Far Traveler – Far Traveler is perfect for those in search of adventure. You gain Insight (WIS) and Perception (WIS) as starter proficiencies and bear the mark of being an exotic foreigner wherever you travel. Surely you can use this to your advantage!
  • Folk Hero – The Folk Hero from the basic rules set is the right choice for anyone looking to be a hometown champion. Gaining Animal Handling (WIS) and Survival (WIS) as starter proficiencies, you’ll be able to play the Robin Hood type with ease.
  • Knight – C’mon, you already know this one. Athletics (STR) and Religion (INT) are your proficiencies. This pairs well with any Paladin in the group but will also mix just fine with anyone looking to be a meat shield. 25gp is no small purse either!
  • Urchin – Perfect for the player looking to stay in the shadows. Urchin starts with Sleight of Hand (DEX) and Stealth (DEX). You’ll be able to stealth, steal, and slink through the shadows with any DEX-based class after choosing this background.

Off-The-Wall Backgrounds

Are you looking for something weird to play? Look no further! Here are our top picks for odd backgrounds if you’re bored with the usuals.

  • Urban Bounty Hunter – The Urban Bounty Hunter is perfect for a player looking for flexibility. You get a choice between 4 DEX heavy proficiencies as well as tool proficiencies. This background is the Macguyver of the D&D world.
  • Volstrucker Agent – This background is for assassins. Heavy DEX, poison kit to start with. What more could you ask for as a dagger slinging rogue? You’ll be out taking down kingdoms in no time with this background.
  • Anthropologist – An alternative to the Sage background. Insight (INT) and Religion (INT) are your starting proficiencies. You also get to pick one race to become a cultural chameleon with, meaning you’ve adopted their culture into your own. You’re also adept at learning foreign languages. Perfect for that social spell caster!
  • Pirate – Intimidation (CHA) and Deception (CHA) are your front runners for the pirate. Shout cliché pirate terms and drink lots of rum. Sail the high seas with a grappling hook and a rapier. Though, thinking about it, a grappling hook would probably come in handy on land too. Yar to your heart’s content!

Related Questions

Can you Have Two D&D Backgrounds in 5e?

By the rules in 5e, no. If it’s something your Dungeon Master allows, why not? Mixing and matching backgrounds can be fun. In real life, rarely does a person only do one thing their entire life, so why should your character be tied down? Dungeon Masters, please!

How Do I Choose a D&D 5e Background?

We touched on this in the bulk of the post. Long answer short, there’s not a ton of wrong answers. However, you want to pair your character with your background is up to you. There certainly are some annoying answers and answers that aren’t ideal, but how you play is ultimately between you and the Dungeon Master.

What are All the Backgrounds in D&D 5e?

In total, there are 84 different backgrounds between the current 5e player guides. Here is the list of the backgrounds from D&D Beyond. There’s a lot. That’s why guides like this exist. Don’t get overwhelmed! Just take your time, and pick the one that stands out to you the most. Or you can always use our Choice Wheel and let the fates decide!

Final Thoughts

Whew, that was a lot. And that’s still not everything. We have so many other posts about what we’ve talked about that you could (and probably should) spend an entire day reading them. When it comes down to it, your class and background are entirely up to you.

This post is meant to be a mechanical guide to putting all the pieces of a great background together, but ultimately you should make these choices between yourself and your Dungeon Master. If you’re not having fun, try something different! There’s no shame in making changes.

That’s the point of D&D, right? If you keep that your focus, we bet your next adventure will be your best one yet!

Rob Benson

Rob Benson

Co-Founder

Rob has been invested in the gaming world since the first Nintendo Entertainment System came out. After being introduced to Dungeons and Dragons in middle school, he decided to grow his passion and a lifelong love for tabletops. His favorite part of D&D is watching players come alive as they learn how to play the game!

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